The first thing you encounter in Berlinde De Bruyckere’s No Life Lost is a glass display case in which three dead horses are heaped atop each other. The exhibition is an equine-focused meditation on slaughter, renewal, and the duality of the human condition.
Hosted by global gallery Hauser & Wirth’s Manhattan location, De Bruyckere’s darkly beautiful body of work weaves mythology, history, and personal encounters into fixtures of wax, skins, and metal. From a series of soft paintings (Met tere huid, or Of Tender Skin) to a 60-foot cast of a fallen elm which fills an entire room,(Kreupelhout – Cripplewood), each work strikes viewers with images of contortion, beauty, slaughter, and vulnerability.
Before encountering Kreupelhout, viewers are met with recreations of fallen animals, mainly horses, in five related pieces. The three cavalry horses, No Life Lost II, reflect the subject of death in war, a meditation the Belgian De Bruyckere has explored in her work since 1999. The bodies are reconstructed with horse skins, wood, leather, blankets, and iron.
The remaining works have the same morbid and melancholic feel. In To Zurbaran, a small foal lies blindfolded on a wooden table with all legs bound, portraying an image rooted both in Christian symbolism of sacrificial lambs and the Syrian refugee crisis that has found the world transfixed by heartrending images of tiny bodies washed up on Mediterranean shores. The paintings in Met tere huid combine both soft and harsh hues to reflect the simultaneous harsh imagery and softness in animal flesh. And Penthesilea II is a wax rendering of flayed skin, a conceptual image drawn from an opera based on the ancient greek myth of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, and the warrior Achilles.
But perhaps the most arresting installation is No Life Lost I, which at first appears to be three rows of high-hanging, ghoulish dark figures. The "dementors" of Harry Potter come to mind— but with closer inspection, viewers can see traces of hair, hooves, a red-hued stretch, half a snout, clefts: these are hide-like casts masterfully rendered with wax, steel, and epoxy. De Bruyckere constructed these three rows of hanging skins cast from wax in a tribute to her visit to a skin tanner’s workshop. Hauser & Wirth’s press release details her reaction: “The smell of freshly slaughtered animals, the salt on the ground mingling with blood into a wet slush… I still don’t know, but I saw powerful images. I was unable to avert my eyes… I knew I had witnessed something I needed to transcribe. Never have I experienced death and life as intensely as I did there.” She later invited Romeu Runa, a Portuguese contemporary dancer, to share the same encounter.
Accompanying the exhibition of No Life Lost, Runa developed a deeply vulnerable and raw response to the experience. His second collaboration with Bruyckere, Sibylle has only been performed five times, at select hours, from January to April 2016.
Aiming to convey the nature of decay, and incorporating the ingredient used for preservation in the skinner’s trade, Runa begins with salt— he opens his performance laying naked in the center of a large mound of it. As his silent, visceral work progresses, he transitions from arching up to collapsing, from ecstatic moments of splayed-out, newly summoned strength to a mournful, listless self-burial. During one of few moments where he straightens himself to standing, he urinates on the salt. At another moment, he grasps and thrusts the salt in deft, sudden motions across his own curled back. Sibylle escapes tangible descriptions and brings an unexpected dimension to De Bruyckere’s work.
At the conclusion of Runa’s performance, his path takes him slowly out of the room, around the corner, and out of sight. The taxing effort left him in no state to speak, and he politely said, "I'm sorry, I need to step out, I need fresh air." Staff at Hauser & Wirth described the performance as “clearly emotional and highly moving every time”—of this there is no doubt.
To learn more about Berlinde de Bruyckere's work, click here.